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motifs

Laura Mulvey
When I was in school I was getting disgusted with the attitude of art being so
religious or sacred, so I wanted to make something which people could relate to
without having read a book about it first. So that anybody off the street could
appreciate it, even if they couldn’t fully understand it; they could still get
something out of it. That’s the reason why I wanted to imitate something out of
the culture, and also make fun of the culture as I was doing it.
Cindy Sherman
1
Cindy Sherman had a full-scale retrospective in the Whitney Museum of
American Art in 1987 and has recently had work on display at the Saatchi
Gallery in London.* At a moment when the art market is rippling with the
fallout from the Saatchis’ recent decision to sell some conceptual and post-
modern work in order to invest in late modernism, this location is a sign of
her economic as well as her critical standing. Her art is certainly post-
modern. Her works are photographs; she is not a photographer but an artist
who uses photography. Each image is built around a photographic depiction
of a woman. And each of the women is Sherman herself, simultaneously
artist and model, transformed, chameleon-like, into a glossary of pose,
gesture and facial expression. As her work developed between 1977 and 1987
a strange process of metamorphosis took place. Apparently easy and access-
ible postmodern pastiche underwent a gradual transformation into difficult,
but still accessible, images that raise serious and challenging questions for
contemporary feminist aesthetics. And the metamorphosis provides a
A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body:
The Work of Cindy Sherman
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hindsight that then alters the significance of her early production. In
order to work through the critical implications of this altered perspec-
tive, it is necessary to fly in the face of Sherman’s own expressly non-,
even anti-, theoretical stance. Paradoxically, it is because there is no
explicit citation of theory in the work, no explanatory words, no lin-
guistic signposts, that theory can come into its own. Sherman’s work
stays on the side of enigma, but as a critical challenge not as insoluble
mystery. Figuring out the enigma, deciphering its pictographic clues,
applying the theoretical tools associated with feminist aesthetics, is—
to use one of her favourite words—fun, and draws attention to the
way theory, decipherment and the entertainment of riddle- or puzzle-
solving may be connected.
A New Politics of the Body
During the seventies, feminist aesthetics and women artists con-
tributed greatly to the questioning of two great cultural boundary
divisions. Throughout the twentieth century, inexorably but discon-
tinuously, pressure had been building up against the separation of art
theory from art practice on the one hand, and the separation between
high culture and low culture on the other. The collapse of these divi-
sions, crucial to the many and varied components of postmodernism,
was also vital to feminist art. Women artists made use of both theory
and popular culture through reference and quotation. Cindy Sherman,
first showing work in the late seventies, used popular culture as
her source material without using theory as commentary and distan-
ciation device. When her photographs were first shown, their
insistent reiteration of representations of the feminine, and her use of
herself as model, in infinite varieties of masquerade, won immediate
attention from critics who welcomed her as a counterpoint to feminist
theoretical and conceptual art. The success of her early work, its
acceptance by the centre (the art market and institutions) at a time
when many artists were arguing for a politics of the margins, helped
to obscure both the work’s interest for feminist aesthetics and the fact
that the ideas it raised could not have been formulated without a
prehistory of feminism and its theorization of the body and represent-
ation. Sherman’s arrival on the art scene certainly marks the begin-
ning of the end of that era in which the female body had become, if
not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through
theory. But rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the
agenda. She brings a different perspective to the ‘images of women
question’ and recuperates a politics of the body that had, perhaps,
been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of seventies feminism.
In the early seventies, the women’s movement claimed the female
body as a site for political struggle, mobilizing around abortion rights,
above all, but with other ancillary issues spiralling out into agitation
* This article was written while a selection of Cindy Sherman’s work was on show at
the Saatchi Gallery in London (an exhibition held in conjunction with Richard
Artschwager and Richard Wilson from 11 January to 28 July 1991) and went to press
before the opening of the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery,
London (2 August–22 September).
1
Sandy Nairne, The State of the Art. Ideas and Images in the 1980s, London 1987, p. 132.
138
over medical marginalization and sexuality itself as a source of
women’s oppression. A politics of the body led logically to a politics
of representation of the body. It was only a small step to include the
question of images of women in the accompanying debates and cam-
paigns, but it was a step that also moved feminism out of familiar ter-
rains of political action onto that of political aesthetics. And this small
step called for a new conceptual vocabulary and opened feminist
theory up to the influence of semiotics and psychoanalysis. The initial
idea that images contributed to women’s alienation from their bodies
and from their sexuality, with an attendant hope of liberation and
recuperation, gave way to theories of representation as symptom and
signifier of the way problems posed by sexual difference under pat-
riarchy could be displaced onto the feminine.
Not surprisingly, this kind of theoretical/political aesthetics also
affected artists working in the climate of seventies feminism, and the
representability of the female body underwent a crisis. At one
extreme, the film-maker Peter Gidal said in 1978 ‘I have had a
vehement refusal over the last decade, with one or two minor aber-
rations, to allow images of women into my films at all, since I do not
see how those images can be separated from the dominant mean-
ings.’
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Women artists and film-makers, while rejecting this wholesale
banishment, were extremely wary about the investment of ‘dominant
meanings’ in images of women; and while feminist critics turned to
popular culture to analyse these meanings, artists turned to theory,
juxtaposing images and ideas, to negate dominant meanings and,
slowly and polemically, to invent different ones. Although in this
climate Cindy Sherman’s concentration on the female body seemed
almost shocking, her representations of femininity were not a return,
but a re-representation, a making strange.
A visitor to a Cindy Sherman retrospective, who moves through the
work in its chronological order, must be almost as struck by the dra-
matic nature of its development, as by the individual, very striking,
works themselves. It is not a question of observing an increasing
maturity, a changed style, or new directions, but of following a certain
narrative of the feminine from an initial premiss to its very end. And
this development takes place over ten years, between 1977 and 1987.
The journey through time, through the work’s chronological develop-
ment, is also a journey into space. Sherman dissects the phantasma-
goric space conjured up by the female body, from its exteriority to its
interiority. The visitor who reaches the final images and then returns,
reversing the order, finds that with the hindsight of what was to come,
the early images are transformed. The first process of discovery,
amusement and amazement is completed by a new curiosity, reverie
and decipherment. And then, once the process of bodily disintegra-
tion is established in the later work, the early, innocent, images
acquire a retrospective uncanniness.
2
Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, eds., ‘The Cinematic Apparatus’. From the
discussion that followed Peter Gidal, ‘Technology and Ideology in/through/and Avant
Garde Film: An Instance’, New York 1980, p. 169.
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Untitled Film Still, 1979
Untitled Film Still, 1979
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Parodying Voyeurism
The first series of photographs, which also established Sherman’s
reputation, are called Untitled Film Stills. In each photograph Sherman
poses for the camera, as though in a scene from a movie. Each photo-
graph has its own mise en scène, evoking a style of film-making that is
highly connotative but elusive. The black and white photographs
seem to refer to the fifties, to the New Wave, to Neo-realism, to Hitch-
cock, or to Hollywood B pictures: This use of an amorphous connota-
tion places them in a nostalgia genre, comparable to the American
movies of the eighties that Fredric Jameson describes as typifying the
postmodern characteristic of evoking the past while denying the refer-
ence of history.
3
They have the Barthesian quality of ‘fifties-ness’: that
American collective fantasy of the fifties as the time of everyone’s youth
in a white and mainly middle America setting, in the last moment of
calm before the storms of Vietnam, civil rights, and finally feminism.
But Sherman twists nostalgia to suggest its dependence on construct-
ing images and representations that conceal more than they record.
She also draws attention to the historical importance of this period for
establishing a particular culture of appearances—specifically, the
feminine appearance. The accoutrements of the feminine struggle to
conform to a facade of desirability haunt Sherman’s iconography.
Make-up, high heels, hair, clothes are all carefully ‘put on’ and ‘done’.
Sherman-the-model dresses up into character, while Sherman-the-
artist reveals her character’s masquerade. The juxtaposition begins to
refer to a ‘surface-ness’, so that nostalgia begins to dissolve into unease.
An overinsistence on surface starts to suggest that it might be masking
something or other that should be hidden from sight, and a hint of
another space starts to lurk inside a too plausible facade. Sherman
accentuates the uneasiness by inscribing vulnerability into both the
mise en scène of the photographs and the women’s poses and expressions.
These Film Still scenes are set mainly in exteriors. Their fascination is
derived from their quality as trompe l’oeil. The viewer is subjected to a
series of double takes, estrangements and recognitions. The camera
looks; it ‘captures’ the female character in a parody of different
voyeurisms. It intrudes into moments in which she is unguarded,
sometimes undressed, absorbed into her own world in the privacy of
her own environment. Or it witnesses a moment in which her guard
drops as she is suddenly startled by a presence, unseen and off screen,
watching her. Or it observes her, simultaneously demure and alluring,
composed for the outside world and its intrusive gaze. The viewer is
immediately caught by the voyeurisms on offer. But the obvious fact
that each character is Sherman herself, disguised, introduces a sense
of wonder at the illusion and its credibility. And, as is well known in
the cinema, any moment of marvelling at an illusion immediately
destroys its credibility. The lure of voyeurism turns around like a trap, and
the viewer ends up aware that Sherman-the-artist has set up a
machine for making the gaze materialize uncomfortably, in alliance
with Sherman-the-model. Then the viewer’s curiosity may be attracted
to the surrounding narrative. But any speculation about a story, about
3
F. Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London 1991, p. 19.
141
actual events and the character depicted, quickly reaches a dead end.
The visitor at a Cindy Sherman show must be well aware that the Film
Still is constructed for this one image only, and that nothing exists
either before or after the moment shown. Each pregnant moment is a
cutout, a tableau suggesting and denying the presence of a story. As
they pretend to be something more, the Film Stills parody the stillness
of the photograph and ironically enact the poignancy of a ‘frozen
moment’. The women in the photographs are almost always in stasis,
halted by something more than photography, like surprise, reverie,
decorum, anxiety, or just waiting.
The viewer’s voyeurism is uncomfortable. There is no complementary
exhibitionism on the part of the female figures, and the sense of look-
ing on, unobserved, provokes a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. The
images are, however, erotic. Sexuality pervades the figures and their
implied narratives. Sherman performs femininity as an appearance,
in which the insistent sexualization of woman is integrated into style
and respectability. Because Sherman uses cosmetics literally as a mask
she makes visible the feminine as masquerade. And it is this homo-
geneous culture of fifties-like appearance that Sherman uses to adopt
such a variety of same, but different, figurations. Identity, she seems
to say, lies in looks. But just as she is artist and model, voyeur and
looked-at, active and passive, subject and object, the photographs set
up a comparable variety of positions and responses for the viewer.
There is no stable subject position in her work, no resting point that
does not quickly shift into something else. So the Film Stills’ initial
sense of homogeneity and credibility break up into the kind of
heterogeneity of subject position that feminist aesthetics espoused in
advance of postmodernism proper.
Soft-Core Pastiche
In 1980 Sherman made her first series of colour photographs, using
back-projections of exteriors rather than actual locations, moving into
a closer concentration on the face, and flattening the space of the pho-
tograph. Then, in 1981, she produced a series of colour photographs
that start to suggest an interior space, and initiate her exploration
inside the masquerade of femininity’s interior/exterior binary opposi-
tion. The photographs all have the same format, horizontal like a
cinemascope screen, so most of the figures lie on sofas or beds, or on
the floor. As the series originated with a centrefold for Artforum, they
give a strong sense of soft-core pastiche. These photographs concen-
trate on the sphere of feminine emotion, longing and reverie and are
set in private spaces that reduplicate the privacy of emotion. But,
once again, an exact sensation is impossible to pin down. The young
women that Sherman impersonates may be daydreaming about a
future romance, or they may be mourning a lost one. They may be
waiting, in enforced passivity, for a letter or telephone call. Their eyes
gaze into the distance. They are not aware of their clothes, which are
sometimes carelessly rumpled, so that, safe alone with their thoughts,
their bodies are, slightly, revealed to the viewer. They exude vulner-
ability and sexual availability like lovesick heroine/victims in a
romantic melodrama. There are some precedents in the Untitled Film
Stills for this series, but the use of colour, the horizontal format and
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the repeated pose create a double theme of inside space and of reverie.
The intimate space of a bedroom provides an appropriate setting for
daydream or reverie, and combines with Sherman’s erotic, suggestive,
poses to accumulate connotations of sexuality. These photographs
reiterate the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of femininity. While the Untitled
Film Stills fake a surrounding narrative, so the camera does not draw
undue attention to its presence; the 1981 Untitleds, on the other hand,
announce themselves as photographs and, as in a pin-up, the model’s
eroticism, and her pose, are directed towards the camera, and ulti-
mately towards the spectator. However, the spectator who looks back
at the gaze that sometimes comes out from the image, or is drawn into
voyeuristic involvement with the figure displayed, must then remem-
ber that the artist both poses herself in a mirror and photographs the
scene herself by means of a remote control.
In most of the Untitled Film Stills the female figure stands out in sharp
contrast to her surroundings, exaggerating her vulnerability in an
exterior world. In some, however, a visible grain merges the figure
with the texture and material of the photograph. In the 1981 series,
Sherman’s use of colour and of light and shade merges the female
figure and her surroundings into a continuum, without hard edges.
Pools of light illuminate patches of skin or bathe the picture in soft
glow. Above all, the photographs have a glossy, high-quality finish in
keeping with the codes and conventions of commercial photography.
While the poses are soft and limp—polar opposites of a popular idea
of fetishized femininity (high-heeled and corseted erect, flamboyant
and exhibitionist)—fetishism returns in the formal qualities of the
photography. The sense of surface now resides, not in the female
figure’s attempt to save her face in a masquerade of femininity, but in
the model’s subordination to, and imbrication with, the texture of the
photographic medium itself.
Metamorphoses
Sherman’s next important phase, the Untitleds of 1983, first manifests
the darkness that will, from then on, increasingly overwhelm her
work. This turn was, in the first place, a reaction against the fashion
industry that first invited her to design photographs for them and
then tried to modify and tone down the results. ‘From the beginning
there was something that didn’t work with me, like there was friction.
I picked out some clothes I wanted to use. I was sent completely differ-
ent clothes that I found boring to use. I really started to make fun, not
of the clothes, but much more of the fashion. I was starting to put scar
tissue on my face to become really ugly.’
4
These photographs use bright, harsh light and high-contrast colour.
The characters are theatrical and ham up their roles. A new Sherman
body is beginning to emerge. She grotesquely parodies the kind of
feminine image that is geared to erotic consumption, and she inverts
conventional codes of female allure and elegance. Whereas the lan-
guage of fashion photography gives great emphasis to lightness, so
that its models seem to defy gravity, Sherman’s figures are heavy in
4
Nairne, p. 136.
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body and groundedness. Their unselfconsciousness verges on the exhi-
bitionist, and they strike professional poses to display costumes that
exaggerate their awkward physiques, which are then exaggerated
again by camera angle and lighting. There is absolutely nothing to do
with nature or the natural in this response to the cosmetic svelteness
of fashion. Rather, they suggest that the binary opposition to the per-
fect body of the fashion model is the grotesque, and that the smooth
glossy body, polished by photography, is a defence against an anxiety-
provoking, uneasy and uncanny body. From this perspective the sur-
face of the body, so carefully conveyed in the early photographs,
seems to be dissolving to reveal a monstrous otherness behind the cos-
metic facade. The ‘something’ that had seemed to be lurking in the
phantasmatic topography of femininity, begins, as it were, to congeal.
After the Untitleds of 1983, the anti-fashion series, the metamorphoses
become more acute and disturbing. The series Untitled 1984 is like a
reversal of Dorian Gray; as though the pain, anger and stupidity of
human nature left their traces clearly on human features, as though
the surface was failing in its task of masking. In the next series,
inspired by the monsters of fairy stories, the figures become super-
natural; and, rather like animistic personifications, they tower above
or return to the elements. By this time the figures seem to be the ema-
nations of irrational fears, verging on terror, relics of childhood night-
mares. If the ‘centrefold’ series conveyed, through pose and facial
expression, the interiority of secret thoughts, now Sherman seems to
personify the stuff of the unconscious itself. While the earlier interior-
ity suggested soft, erotic, reverie, these are materializations of arxiety
and dread. Sherman seems to have shifted from conveying or suggest-
ing the presence of a hidden otherness to representing its inhabitants.
This is a shift that differentiates between reverie and the stuff of the
repressed, the unconscious. Increasingly grotesque and deforming
make-up blurs gender identity, and some figures are horned or
snouted, like horrific mythological hybrids. If the earlier iconography
suggested a passive aspiration to please, deformation and distortion
seem to erupt in some kind of ratio to repression. These figures are
active and threatening.
Finally, in the last phase, the figure disappears completely. Sometimes
body bits are replaced by prosthetics, such as false breasts or but-
tocks, but, in the last resort, nothing is left but disgust—the disgust of
sexual detritus, decaying food, vomit, slime, menstrual blood, hair.
These traces represent the end of the road, the secret stuff of bodily
fluids that the cosmetic is designed to conceal. The topography of
exterior/interior is exhausted. Previously, all Sherman’s work had
been centred and structured around a portrait, so that a single figure
had provided a focus for the viewer’s gaze. Surrounding mises-en-scène
gradually vanished as though Sherman was denying the viewer any
mitigation or distraction from the figures themselves as they gradually
became more and more grotesque. Around 1985, settings make a
comeback in the photographs, but diffused into textures. Natural ele-
ments—pebbles, sand or soil, for instance—develop expressive and
threatening connotations. Colour, lighting, and the texture of the
figures themselves merge them visually into their settings. The camera
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angle now looks down onto the ground where the figures lie lifeless,
or, perhaps, trapped in their own materiality.
The shift in perspective, to downward camera angle, heralds Sher-
man’s final transformation. When the body, in any homogeneous or
cohesive form, disappears from the scene, its traces and detritus are
spread out on the ground, on pebbles or sand, or submerged in water.
With the disintegration of the body, the photographs also lose any
homogeneous and cohesive formal organization and the sense of phys-
ical fragmentation is echoed in the fragmentation of the images. Now
the edge of the image may be as significant as any other section of its
space. At the same time the photographs have become monstrously
enlarged. The early series, Untitled Film Stills, were all in the format of
eight by ten inches, while the late series have grown to dimensions
such as seventy-two by forty-nine inches. The viewer could take in the
early work with a glance and sense of command over the image; the
late photographs overwhelm the viewer and force the eye to scan the
surface, searching for a specific shape or pattern that might offer
some formal reassurance against the disturbing content.
De-fetishizing the Female Body
From the perspective of feminist aesthetics, this narrative of disinte-
gration, horror and finally disgust, raises, first and foremost, the ques-
tion of the source, or origin, of this phantasmagoria of the female
body, and, secondly, how it might be analysed. Sherman depicts a
phantasmatic space, projected onto and then into the female body. A
variety of issues are raised by the question of spatial metaphor. First
of all, there is certainly a sense in which Sherman’s ironic ‘unveiling’
also ‘unveils’ the use of the female body as a metaphor for division
between surface allure and concealed decay, as though the stuff that
has been projected for so long into a mythic space ‘behind’ the mask
of femininity had suddenly broken through the delicately painted veil.
This veil is exemplified by the myth of enchantress-turned-hag, out of
which the dualistic mythology of the female body came to represent
the opposition between truth and artifice. Barbara Spackman, in her
discussion of the appropriation of the female body as metaphor by
symbolist aesthetics, comments on this figuration: ‘As a figure for her-
meneutics itself, it may be read as enacting the discovery of essence
that lies beneath appearance, truth beneath falsehood, reality beneath
fiction, plain speech beneath cosmetic rhetoric. Indeed . . . Nietzsche
uses this very topos in order to overturn it, in order to critique the
hermeneutic model that would find an essence beneath appearance.
These are, of course, valid interpretations. Yet they discard the literal
in order to concentrate on the figural and do not ask why woman is
favoured as the vehicle of the metaphor.’
5
As Spackman argues, woman becomes ‘the favoured vehicle of the
metaphor’ once she is seen as the site of castration, so the origin of
this phantasmagoria of the female body may be found in the struc-
ture of the unconscious, and may be deciphered with the aid of
5
Barbara Spackman, Decadent Geneologies. The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to
D’Annunzio, Ithaca 1989, p. 165.
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psychoanalytic theory. A cosmetic, artificial appearance then conceals
the wound or void left in the male psyche when it perceives sexual dif-
ference. In this sense, the topography of the feminine masquerade
echoes the topography of the fetish itself. It could certainly be argued
that the metamorphosis of the feminine in Sherman’s work traces this
mythic figuration, and, in parodying the metaphor, returns in the last
resort to the ‘literal’, to the bodily fluids and wastes that become con-
densed with wounded body in the iconography of misogyny. But she
also, dramatically, draws attention to the regime of representational
and mythological contradiction lived by women under patriarchy.
Although the origin of the image may be in the unconscious, and
although the image may be a phantasm, these collective fantasies also
have an impact in reality and produce symptoms that mediate
between the two. The late photographs are a reminder that the female
psyche may well identify with misogynistic revulsion against the
female body and attempt to erase signs that mark her physically as
feminine. The images of decaying food and vomit raise the spectre of
the anorexic girl, who tragically acts out the fashion fetish of the
female as an eviscerated, cosmetic and artificial construction designed
to ward off the ‘otherness’ hidden in the ‘interior’.
It is hard to trace the collapse of the female body as successful fetish
without re-representing the anxieties and dreads that give rise to the
fetish in the first place, and Sherman might be open to the accusation
that she reproduces the narrative without a sufficiently critical context.
It is here that the Untitled Film Stills may be re-read with the hindsight
of the future development of Sherman’s work in mind. To return to
the early photographs in this way is to see how the female body can
become a conduit for different ideas superimposed, as it were, and
condensed into a single image. For instance, the uncanniness of the
women characters, behind their cosmetic facades, starts to merge with
the instability of the photograph as object of belief. The structure of
fetishism indicates a homology between these different ideas, and the
theory of fetishism helps to unravel the process of condensation.
Between Knowledge and Belief
For Freud, fetishism is particularly significant (apart, that is, from his
view that it ‘confirmed the castration complex’) as a demonstration that
the psyche can sustain incompatible ideas, at one and the same time,
through a process of disavowal. Fetishistic disavowal acknowledges the
possibility of castration (represented by the female, penis-less, genital)
and simultaneously denies it. Freud saw the coexistence of these two
contradictory ideas, maintained in a single psyche, as a model for the
ego’s relation to reality: the ‘splitting of the ego’, which allowed two
parallel, but opposed, attitudes to be maintained in uneasy balance.
Switching back and forth between visual duping, followed by percep-
tion of the duping mechanism, a willing suspension of disbelief fol-
lowed by a wave of disillusion—‘I know . . . but all the same . . .’—the
viewer of Sherman’s Film Stills can almost physically feel, and indeed
relish, the splitting open of the gap between knowledge and belief.
This ‘oscillation effect’ is important to postmodernism. The viewer
looks, recognizes a style, doubts, does a double take, then recognizes
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that the style is a citation, and meanings shift and change their
reference like shifting perceptions of perspective from an optical
illusion. This effect is, perhaps, particularly exciting because it dices
with credibility in a manner similar to the fetish. In this sense, Cindy
Sherman pushes postmodern play to its limits. When the viewer
reaches the final photographs of disintegration and only reluctantly
recognizes the content for what it is, the art aspect of Sherman’s work
returns. It is not so much that the colours of the detritus images are
more ‘painterly’ and their reference is more to the shape of the frame
than the figure, but that their place on the gallery wall affirms their
status as art, just as the viewer is about to turn away in revolted
disbelief. In this sense, they, too, create an ‘oscillation effect’, this time
between reverence and revulsion. This kind of theme is present in
Sherman’s latest works, which are outside the 1978–87 ‘narrative’ and
return to the figuration of the human body, now refracted through art
itself. She reproduces old masters, taking the role of the central figure,
or impersonating a portrait. Again, she distorts the body with false
additions, such as the breast in a Virgin and Child. Although these
images lack the inexorability and complexity of her previous phase,
she still plays on the structures of disavowal and draws attention to
the art-historical fetishization of great works and their value.
For Freud, the structure of fetishism was not the same as the structure
of repression. While providing a substitute and a replacement and
literally a screen against a traumatic memory, the fetish is also a
memento of loss and substitution. And in these circumstances, how
the female body, the original provoker of castration anxiety, is repre-
sented may be symptomatic and revealing. When Sherman depicts
femininity as a masquerade in her succession of ‘dressings-up’, the
female body asserts itself as a site of anxiety that it must, at all costs,
conceal. And it acquires a self-conscious vulnerability that seems to
exude tension between an exterior appearance and its interiority. In
this way, Sherman plays with a ‘topography’ of the female body. But
the early photographs illustrate the extent to which this ‘topography’
has been integrated into a culture of the feminine. In order to create a
‘cosmetic’ body a cosmetics industry has come into being, so that the
psychic investment the patriarchy makes in feminine appearance is
echoed by an investment on the part of capitalism. And cosmetics are
also, of course, the tools of Sherman’s trade.
Fetishism depends on a phantasmatic topography, setting up a screen
and shield, closely linked to the ego’s defence mechanism, as Freud
pointed out. At the same time, fetishism is the most semiotic of per-
versions, screening and shielding by means of an object that is,
unavoidably, also a sign of loss and substitution. But its semiotic
enterprise is invested in the deceit of artifice. The fetish is, as
Nietzsche said of woman, ‘so artistic’. As feminist theorists have
noted, the female body not only reduplicates this structure—of a
surface as screen and anxiety-provoking interior, the enchantress/hag
dichotomy—but it can incarnate the fetish object itself. This
syndrome came into its own with the Hollywood star system, the mass
production of pin-ups, and the equation, in contemporary consumer
culture, between the feminine and glamour.
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Cindy Sherman traces the abyss or morass that overwhelms the
defetishized body, deprived of the fetish’s semiotic, reduced to being
‘unspeakable’ and devoid of significance. Her late work comes close to
depicting the Kristevan concept of the abject: that is, the disgust aroused
in the human psyche by lifeless, inanimate bodily matter, bodily wastes
and the dead body itself.
6
For Kristeva, abjection is closely associated
with separation from the mother’s body. The small child, of both
sexes, in the process of establishing autonomous subjectivity, has to
establish an autonomous ‘clean and proper body’. While previously
the child found pleasure in its bodily wastes and the satisfying undif-
ferentiation between its body and that of its mother, when it needs to
define boundaries and separations, feelings of disgust come into play.
Barbara Creed’s argument that abjection is central to the recurring
image of the ‘monstrous feminine’ in horror movies is also applicable
to the monstrous in Sherman.
7
Although her figures materialize the
stuff of irrational terror, they also have pathos and could easily be
understood in terms of ‘the monster as victim’. Her photographs of
atrophied figures (for instance, the corpse that lies like a soiled wax-
work, eyes staring and blending with colour tones into the grass)
could be collected into a lexicon of horror and the uncanny, just as the
Untitled Film Stills are like a lexicon of poses and gestures typical of
respectable, but still uncanny, femininity. The 1987 series suggests
that, although both sexes are subject to abjection, it is women who can
explore and analyse the phenomenon with greater equanimity, as it is
the female body that has come, not exclusively but predominantly, to
represent the shudder aroused by liquidity and decay.
Fifties America: The Democracy of Glamour
By referring to the fifties in her early work, Sherman joins many others
in identifying Eisenhower’s America as the mythic birthplace of
postmodern culture. Reference to the fifties invokes the aftermath of the
Korean War and the success of the Marshall Plan, American mass con-
sumption and the ‘society of the spectacle’; a time when, in the context
of the Cold War, advertising, movies and the actual packaging and
seductiveness of commodities all marketed glamour. Glamour pro-
claimed the desirability of American capitalism to the outside world
and, inside, secured American-ness as an aspiration for the newly
suburbanized, white, population as it buried incompatible memories
of immigrant origins. In Sherman’s early photographs, connotations
of vulnerability and instability flow over on to the construction and
credibility of the wider, social masquerade. The image of fifties-ness
as a particular emblem of American-ness, also masks the fact that it
was a decade of social and political repression while profound change
gathered on the horizon—the transition, that is, from Joe McCarthy to
James Dean. Rather than simply referring to ‘fifties-ness’ in nostal-
gia mode, Sherman hints at a world ingesting the seeds of its own decay.
She is closer, therefore, to Blue Velvet than to American Graffiti.
It is interesting, in the light of the American postmodern citation of
6
Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, New York 1982.
7
See Barbara Creed, ‘Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine’, in Annette Kuhn, ed., Alien
Zone. Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London 1990.
148
the fifties, to consider the pivotal place occupied by Marilyn Monroe,
as an icon in her own right, and as source of all the subsequent Mari-
lyn iconography, kept alive by gay subculture, surfacing with Debbie
Harry in the late seventies and perpetuated by Madonna in the
eighties (particularly, of course, her ‘Material Girl’). In 1982 Cindy
Sherman appeared on the cover of the Anglo-American avant-garde
magazine ZG. She is immediately recognizable as Marilyn Monroe, in
cover-girl pose. She is not the Marilyn of bright lights and diamonds,
but the other, equally familiar, Marilyn in slacks and a shirt, still epit-
omizing the glamour of the period, hand held to thrown-back head,
eyes half closed, lips open. But refracted through Sherman’s masquer-
ade, Marilyn’s masquerade fails to mask her interior anxiety, and
unhappiness seems to seep through the cracks. America’s favourite
fetish never fully succeeded in papering over her interiority, and the
veil of sexual allure now seems, in retrospect, to be haunted by death.
Cindy Sherman’s impersonations predate, and in some ways pre-
figure, those of Madonna. Madonna’s performances make full use of
the potential of cosmetics. As well as fast changing her own chameleon-
like appearance on a day-to-day basis, she performs homages to the
artificial perfection of the movie stars and also integrates the ‘oscilla-
tion effect’ into the rhythm of her videos, synchronizing editing,
personality change and sexual role reversals. Although Madonna,
obviously, does not follow the Cindy Sherman narrative of disintegra-
tion, her awareness of this, other, side of the topography of feminine
masquerade is evidenced in her well-documented admiration for
Frida Kahlo. Frida depicted her face, in an infinite number of self-
portraits, as a mask, and veiled her body in elaborate Tehuana
dresses. Sometimes the veil falls, and her wounded body comes to the
surface, condensing her real, physical, wounds with both the imagin-
ary wound of castration and the literal interior space of the female
body, the womb, bleeding, in her autobiographical painting, from
miscarriage. Frida Kahlo’s mask was always her own. Marilyn’s was
like a trademark. While Cindy Sherman and Madonna shift appear-
ance into a fascinating debunking of stable identity, Marilyn’s mas-
querade had to be always absolutely identical. Her features were able
to accept cosmetic modelling into an instantly recognizable sign of
‘Marilyn-ness’. But here, too, the mask is taut, threatened by the gap
between public stardom and private pressures (as was the case for
everyone caught in the Hollywood Babylon of the studio system’s
double standards) and also by the logic of the topography itself.
In becoming the democracy of glamour, fifties America completed a
process, through the movies and through mass-produced clothes and
cosmetics, that had been launched in the thirties and interrupted by
the Second World War. It was also a paradigmatic moment for com-
modity fetishism. Baudrillard has noted the origin of the word ‘fetish’
in the Portuguese feitiço, derived from the Latin factitius: ‘From the
same root (facio, factitius) as feitiço comes the Spanish afeitar: “to paint,
to adorn, to embellish” and afeite “preparation, ornamentation,
cosmetics”.’
8
He suggests that this etymology from the artificial and
8
Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis 1981, p. 91.
149
the cosmetic implies a homology between the fetishized figure of
bodily beauty and the fetishism of the commodity. The commodity,
too, is haunted by the gap between knowledge and belief. By exploit-
ing the gap between knowledge and belief, inherent in the complexity
of value, the commodity can erase its origin in the labour of the work-
ing class, at the production line, and turn a phantasmatic, cosmetic,
face to the world. And, as feminists have so often noted, the seal and
guarantee of its success in the market place is so often the veneer of
sexualized glamour generated by juxtaposition to the sexualized
glamour of femininity in advertising. Although Cindy Sherman’s
work is not about the commodity, the citation of the fifties brings to
mind this complex network of homologies. The failure of the fetish,
which she traces through images of the feminine, is similar to the
polarization of gloss in the shop window, and disavowals of the fac-
tory that flourish when society cannot find a way of narrating the
contradictions in its history.
In refusing the word/image juxtaposition, so prevalent in the art of
the seventies and eighties, Sherman may draw the accusation that she
is, herself, stuck in the topographic double bind of the fetish and its
collapse. Although she may be thus unable to inscribe the means of
decipherment into the work itself, her use of Untitled to describe her
works turns inability into refusal. Her work does, however, vividly
illustrate the way that the human psyche thrives on the division
between surface and secret, and that, standing for repression of all
kinds, this recurring spatial metaphor cannot be swept away. The
wordlessness and despair in her work represents the wordlessness and
despair that ensues when a fetishistic structure, the means of erasing
history and memory, collapses, leaving a void in its wake. The fetish
necessarily wants history to be overlooked. That is its function. The
fetish is also a symptom, and as such has a history which may be
deciphered, but only by refusing its phantasmatic topography. Freud
described the structure of the psyche through spatial metaphor to con-
vey the burying action of repression, but he analysed the language of
the unconscious, its formal expression in condensation and displace-
ment, in terms of signification and decipherment. In the last resort,
decipherment is dependent on language. The complete lack of verbal
clues and signifiers in Cindy Sherman’s work draws attention to the
semiotic that precedes a successful translation of the symptom into
language, the semiotic of displacements and fetishism, desperately
attempting to disguise unconscious ideas from the conscious mind.
She uses iconography, connotation, or the sliding of the signifier, in a
trajectory that ends by stripping away all accrued meaning to the limit
of bodily matter. However, even this bedrock—the vomit and the
blood for instance—returns to cultural significance: that is, to the dif-
ficulty of the body, and above all the female body, while it is subjected
to the icons and narratives of fetishism.
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